“A” for the idea. “D” for the execution.

Unfortunately, that's how I'd rate this effort by Seth Godin (before whom I normally genuflect) to identify the “smartest” nonprofits in terms of using the latest online tools (especially the so-called Web 2.0 social networking platforms like Flickr, MySpace, etc) to build community and enthusiasm.

To be sure, there's terrific innovation happening in the online space as nonprofits push the envelope to discover more compelling ways to actually engage their members, donors and activists. And we should be doing all we can to spotlight especially effective examples and practices.

Note the emphasis on effective. There's a lot of stuff out there that's cool and gimmicky, but of no demonstrated effectiveness. In many cases, this is a matter of whether the new online tools and platforms are yet appropriate or relevant to the target audience.

Godin and partners GetActive and NetSquared have done something useful by proferring their “best 59″ list. It's nice to be offered role models. But given the care — and unfortunately, frugality — with which most nonprofits need to approach R&D in new outreach techniques and technologies, they could have done something far more valuable.

They could have based their picks less on impressions than on some methodology with explicit criteria that others could assess and apply for and to themselves. And at least some of those criteria could relate to effectiveness, rather than “new” or “cool” or simply, in a bunch of cases, programmatically attractive (e.g. “St. Jude's won't turn a child away” — wonderful, but what does that have to do with effective online strategy?).

In choosing their best, Godin et al asked a number of questions which reveal the perspective they brought to their assessment. Groups that are using social networking tools and platforms like Godin's Squidoo, YouTube and MySpace are likely to jump to the head of the class, whereas groups “stuck in the land of direct mail, control, and offline fundraising” apparently fared less well. Despite the fact that direct mail remains the “mother's milk” of nonprofit fundraising, even for virtually all of the groups on the “59 Smartest” list.

IMHO, what makes a group smart is that they keep a sense of perspective as they balance the need to innovate and experiment and to learn how to engage the next generations of donors and activists, all worthy indeed, with the need to secure their survival today, which for the foreseeable future means responsibly allocating resources to marketing approaches of demonstrated effectiveness.

It's a question of prudently balancing the new against the proven, the future potential against the present need. (For the record, I do think too many groups tilt marketing-wise too much to the present, with insufficient attention to the future.)

Next time, Godin & Company, tell us what's working, not just what's cool. Nonprofits' marketing resources are just too scarce for “they're trying” to deserve more than a nod of admiration. The bar must be higher.

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